Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

1.2: Defining Interpersonal Communication

  • Page ID
    136526
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Defining Communication

    As we begin our exploration of interpersonal communication together, we need to start with a basic understanding of what we mean when we say "communication." The examples provided in our introduction demonstrate that when we communicate, we understand that it is happening but, if we step back and try to define what is happening in each of those interactions it can be more difficult. Take a minute and define communication in a sentence or two. It is more difficult than it seems! Communication, as defined by theorists and researchers in the field, is the sending and receiving of messages. While that definition may seem simple, it is highly complex and involves the process of both senders and receivers.

    When we communicate, we are trying to get the thoughts in our heads out into the world in a way that will allow others to understand them. To do so we must use symbols to represent our thoughts, and then share them to generate meaning. In other words, communication is sharing symbols to generate meaning.

    Words as Symbols

    To better understand this definition and what it helps us understand about the communication process, we need to examine the distinct parts. First, what are symbols? Symbols are objects or images that denote or are understood to have a specific meaning. We use symbols to express thoughts and ideas in physical form. Words are symbols. We create and reinforce their meaning. Symbols are used to express our thoughts, the perceptions of things we have seen before, and the images of what those symbols mean in our mind. For example, when you text your friend, “hey, you want to grab a bite?” you are using words to convey the thought that you are hungry and want to get food together. Those words are the symbols. If you text your friend a picture of a burger, then you are using the burger emoji as the symbol for those same thoughts.

    Hamburger emoji with bun, tomato, lettuce, cheese, and patty
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Twemoji, Twitter, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

    Most symbols can mean different things at once and can mean different things to different people depending on a number of controllable and uncontrollable factors, like context, subtext, and the past experiences of those communicating. For example, if your friend is not familiar with the phrasing “want to grab a bite?” to reference getting food together, they may not visualize and have reference for the same symbolic meaning of that phrase as you do. Another example could be using the word "significant other," which can conjure up various semantic and symbolic people and relationships for each individual, yet has a standard "literal" or dictionary definition in the English language. In both cases, you are hoping that your friend will interpret these symbols in the same way that you do, so that the meaning generated using those symbols is shared. If that happens, then we have successfully communicated. If your friend doesn’t think the word “bite” means getting something to eat or doesn’t know why you sent them a picture of a hamburger, then you lack shared meaning, and you have miscommunication. As you can see, the definition of communication may be relatively simple, but communication is not.

    English borrows from other languages, making it a rich collection of symbols that has sustained itself as the predominant language of trade and information worldwide. Multilingual speakers know that there are certain words that do not translate or have a misunderstood translation in English. For example, "Mamihlapinatapai" (Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego): this word captures that special look shared between two people when both are wishing that the other would do something that they both want, but neither want to do. The term "zhaghzhagh" (Persian) translates as the chattering of teeth from the cold or from rage.

    Interpersonal Communication Defined

    There are many kinds of communication, but this textbook is focused on interpersonal communication. Interpersonal communication is defined as “communication that takes place between people who are interdependent and have some knowledge of each other” (Wikimedia Foundation, 2022). Interpersonal communication includes how we send and receive messages from others, given our internal perceptions, emotions, and unique contexts. Although we might not have realized the vast and different ways we use communication in our everyday lives, it is important to understand these different categories. In “Types of Communication,” we can see there are crossovers between intrapersonal communication, interpersonal communication, intercultural communication, group communication, and public speaking, but there are also distinct differences within the different interactions as well.

    Types of Communication

    While the focus of this text is on interpersonal communication there are several other types of communication that humans engage. Understanding the various ways we communicate helps us better understand the unique differences between communication types and styles.

    Intrapersonal Communication

    Intrapersonal communication is communication with one’s self. When we engage in “self-talk,” imagine, or remember we are engaging in intrapersonal communication. (McLean, 2005). In order to be considered intrapersonal communication all of the basic components of the communication model occur within the individual (Shedletsky, 2017). We engage in a wide variety of intrapersonal communication from evaluating ourselves and others to resolving internal conflicts to planning and problem solving. While this communication may take place in our minds without being shared externally, it is still communication.

    Interpersonal Communication

    Interpersonal communication is communication between two people and it is the focus of this book. Some scholars refer to interpersonal communication as dyadic because it takes place in a pair, or dyad. We engage in all kinds of interpersonal communication every day. Just think back to the start of this chapter when we explored how much communication you have already done today: much of that communication was dyadic between parent and child, coworkers, customer and employee, teacher and student, etc.

    Intercultural Communication

    Intercultural communication is communication between people with differing cultural identities. One reason we should study intercultural communication is to foster greater self-awareness (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Intercultural communication can allow us to step outside of our comfortable, usual frame of reference and see our culture through a different lens. In our modern world we have increasing opportunities to engage with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds so it is important that we understand how culture influences our communication.

    Group Communication

    Group communication is communication between three or more people, usually in a formal setting where this group membership is assigned or voluntary— such as a team of work colleagues tasked with presenting the company’s growth data at a board meeting, or a church community setting up a fundraiser. While there is some discrepancy over the range, most scholars agree that when a group reaches 15 to 20 members, it is no longer a small group and we begin to move into the next category, public communication. There is significant overlap between interpersonal and small-group communication, because in small groups you have an interpersonal relationship with the other members of the group (Linabary). There are many types of small groups, but the most common distinction made between types of small groups is that of task-oriented and relational-oriented groups (Hargie, 2011). You are probably in a few different groups: for example, your family network functions as a small group, or maybe you are in a study group for one of your classes, or a social group that meets around a shared interest.

    Public Communication

    Public communication occurs when an individual or a group presents to an audience. When a group is too large to sustain interpersonal or small-group interactions, we generally consider it to be public communication, because the larger the number of people increases the range in which the sender is less likely to receive direct communication back in return. Many of you may be familiar with public speaking, which is one of the most common forms of audience-centered communication in our Western perspective. If you have ever given a presentation in class or at your workplace you have engaged in this manner of public communication (Wrench, et al., 2020).

    There are many ways in which different cultures and communities view public communication differently and engage in discourse among large groups through discourse, including judicial review (council meetings, oaths, ministries, etc), spoken word (poetry, theater, storytelling, music, etc.), and epideictic rhetoric (prayers, performance, chants, etc). There are many ways in which we engage in public communication. While some might bring about more fear than others, many of us engage in public communication more frequently than we think.

    Discussion Questions
    1. Which form of communication do you use the most in your everyday life? How do you think this form of communication impacts your everyday experiences?
    2. Think about the different identities you hold (student, friend, caregiver, etc.). How does your communication differ in these roles?
    3. Interpersonal communication can encompass elements of other forms of communication. What examples do you have that showcase this overlap?

    A great deal of our communication is interpersonal communication. Friendships, romantic relationships, families, relationships at work, etc., are all areas where we engage in interpersonal communication. In fact, interpersonal communication is how we develop, maintain, and end relationships. These relationships are the cornerstones of much of our communication interactions, as well as the relationships we invest the most time, energy, and personal resources into. Because of the prominence and impact that interpersonal relationships hold for many of us, this has become an area of interest and curiosity for many researchers within the discipline of communication studies as well as other social sciences. There are many ways in which theories and research within the communication discipline impact and help support theories and research within other disciplines; therefore learning about and continuing to investigate the intricacies of interpersonal communication not only benefits research, but it also benefits our personal lives as well.


    This page titled 1.2: Defining Interpersonal Communication is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Multiple Authors (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.